INTERVIEW WITH FILM MAKER |
& EX-AMAZONIAN MIKE DAISEY
by Dennis Loy Johnson
February 5, 2001 There hasnt been much to laugh about lately at Amazon.com. A year after Earths Biggest Bookstore expanded to sell everything from electronics and housewares to patio furniture and automobiles, a January 30th press release announced the companys fourth quarter losses totaled $545 million, making its net loss for the year a staggering $1.41 billion.
The release also announced the companys biggest layoff ever -- 1,300 employees, including 400 people from its famous customer service center in Seattle. Days later, a leaked email from Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos that promised to get the crap out of Amazons product line led critics to ask why Bezos had added products he considered crap in the first place.
Then laidoff employees complained to the press that, to get Amazons generous tenweek severance package, they had to sign a nondisparagement agreement, and a separation agreement promising not to sue the company for any form of discrimination in their dismissal. Amazon soon buckled and withdrew the nondisparagement agreement, but not the separation agreement, and a group of fifty nonlaidoff employees walked off the job in solidarity with their former colleagues.
Meanwhile, Amazon announced a reorganization of its European operations, including the closing of more customer service centers.
Then some Amazon news actually generated laughs, albeit at the companys expense a former employee, 28yearold Mike Daisey, snuck into Amazons Seattle headquarters with a video camera and shot a funny, mock documentary called Rear Entry, which he posted on the Internet.
With a style somewhere between 60 Minutes and Michael Moore, Daisey used his old Amazon i.d. to get past security and roam the building with cameraman John Tyne. The resultant video is only four minutes long, but includes Daisey encountering a roaming dog; finding business cards from Merrill Lynch and charts about data mining (the selling of customer information) strewn about; taking a (presumably fake) customer service call about Harry Potter and giving an obscene response; and examining what must be one of Jeff Bezos odder possessions the skeleton of a prehistoric bear, on display in the lobby of the building and complete, as Daisey informs us, with a 'twelve inch penis bone.
But even the sophomoric hijinks have a bite Daisey points out the bear cost Bezos a fortune, and throughout the film shows "cube farms" (vast rooms partitioned into hundreds of cubicles) that are eerily vacant.
Daisey posted the video on his brand-new web site, www.mikedaisey.com, where he also runs bulletin boards for disgruntled Amazonians, and updates the laidoff about ongoing severance disputes.
When reached at his Seattle home, he was at first somewhat distracted by the fact that during the night his Web site had mysteriously disappeared from its host server. Hed lost message boards from laid-off Amazonians, but used backups to get Rear Entry and the rest of the site back up.
DJ: What happened?
MD: Well, Im not making any assumptions. All Im saying is that we lost the site. This morning when we got in touch with the hosting company they said the account is just deleted. They have no idea how that happened. So . . .
DJ: Youve been getting a lot of attention?
MD: Uh, the movie has been downloaded about 24,000 times over the last five days. And Ive been getting three or four emails an hour, so Ive gotten hundreds of testimonials. Were gonna put those up on the site once were finished getting peoples permission to do so.
DJ: What inspired you to put your Web site up in the first place?
MD: The Web site went up to promote a stage show Im doing called Twenty One Dog Years: Doing Time at Amazon.com. Its a one-man show about my experiences inside Amazon. Its really almost an anthropological expedition into, you know, how does Amazon create the mindset among its workers that allows them to get so much work out of them whats going on that makes people so dedicated to it?
DJ: What did you do when you worked there?
MD: I started in customer service, and then I moved over to business development. I worked with the associates program where Amazon forges links with other Web sites so that you can link through to Amazon, and people can purchase things.
DJ: Why did you leave?
MD: Layoffs had just happened, in January of last year. They werent as large, of course, as the recent layoffs, but it made me reassess where the company was going. I thought that they got rid of some of their best people, and I realized that I couldnt stay there anymore.
DJ: Had you liked the job until that point?
MD: Oh, I loved the job. I missed it terribly when I left. It was one of the hardest decisions Ive ever made, believe me.
DJ: So what do you think is behind Amazons current troubles?
MD: Well, theres greed. Uh, hubris hubris is a big one. Lot of hubris built into Amazon. I certainly bought into it, too. We really thought that we would change the entire consumer process, that people, you know, would have access to this limitless database, and so everyone would be reading cool books and seeing great movies and we would be able to transform things on a fundamental level. And I think that as we shifted from being earths biggest bookstore to earths best customer service to earths greatest selection, just like the progression of mottoes shifted, the emphasis shifted to we have a lot of stuff, not just a lot of books, but lawnmowers and blenders crap, according to Jeff Bezos! I mean, somewhere along the way the human element of the company started getting lost. And those layoffs on last Tuesday were really the end, I think. Theyre not laying off executives, theyre customer service people, like I was. I mean, these are people that during Christmas would work 60 and 70 hours a week, people who have repetitive stress injuries now, people who believed in this dream so much that even when the stock dropped, you know, they still had this enormous pride in the size and scale of this company that they built. Theres a really tragic element to it all, that the people at the core are really good people who cant believe what theyve built, and cant believe that theyve been excluded from it at this point, after everything that they did. Its pretty miserable.
DJ: How much of this do you attribute to Jeff Bezos?
MD: Nearly a hundred percent. Amazon, at its core, is a cult of personality. Its really a larger reflection of one mans vision. Thats part of what makes it so seductive and so powerful.
DJ: Has anything filtered back to you about his reaction to Rear Entry?
MD: Not yet, although most people I know that know him, you know, better than I do we were just in a couple of meetings together suggest there's a decent to middling chance hell come see the show.
DJ: Does that make you nervous?
MD: Well, it makes me uncomfortable, yeah. I dont think he should come. I dont think hed be very comfortable there, and I dont think that the people watching it, a lot of whom will be people hes laid off, will be very happy if hes there.
DJ: What prompted you to make Rear Entry, and how did you go about doing it?
MD: We decided wed go back to Amazon and sort of do a faux60 Minutes kind of, uh, expose. So we just sort of went in and shot film for about an hour, just shot and ran from area to area until we had everything we could.
DJ: It looked like the place was virtually empty. What time of day was it?
MD: Around 1:30 on a Friday afternoon.
DJ: And nobody was working?
MD: They should be, but theyre not. I dont know what the deal is. But I used to work in that building, and it was always kind of like that.
DJ: What is that building? Is it company headquarters?
MD: Yeah, thats actually the Fortress of Solitude, which is what a lot of employees call it. If youre ever here it's this big, Gothic, Art Deco building that has been bought, I think, to specifically intimidate (laughs) the city. Its visible from wherever you are in Seattle. It just kind of lurks over the city.
DJ: Was it empty because of the layoffs?
MD: No, we went in on January 19th, before the latest round of layoffs. It has always seemed empty, which is very strange, because when I was there we were always having space problems.
DJ: So whose dog is that, in the movie when you first go in the building?
MD: I dont know whose dog that was.
DJ: That dog was just running around?
MD: Yeah. Amazons corporate culture has a thing about dogs. Like, one of the big perks of working at Amazon is you can bring your dog to work. Its actually not that big a perk. Everybodys dogs then wander up and down the hallways. You just, like, will see an empty hallway and a dog. It happens all the time.
DJ: Were you worried that Amazon would file charges against you for breaking in, as you put it?
MD: Well, I wasn't really that worried. I just kind of accepted that as a possible consequence. But I kind of figured it would be a bad idea for them to do that.
DJ: And by doing the show, or making the movie, are you in violation of a nondisclosure or nondisparagement agreement?
MD: No, I dont have the nondisparagement, I have a nondisclosure agreement, and it expires the day before the show opens.
DJ: So whats next?
MD: Ill tell you something, which, I havent told anyone this yet Im going to start working on a book. Everything thats in the show and more. I think its valuable beyond just Amazon it has such an impact in so many areas,. So many people who worked there gave such a huge investment in idealism to the company and feel betrayed by it. So Im charting what happens to the people who sign on at the beginning for one thing and find that theyve actually been given a ticket for something entirely different.
DJ: So you're going to write a book about earths biggest bookseller?
MD: Well, I think its important to note that back when I started there, Amazon was this funky independent bookseller. A lot of us who started working there at the beginning, had, you know, advanced degrees I have a degree in aesthetics, of all things and we were overeducated and one of the reasons we worked there was because we really loved talking to people about books.
DJ: And beyond the book?
MD: My plan is to help support the workers as they get laid off over the next three months. Were doing interviews with as many as we can, which well put up on the site to sort of document what this culture was like. Its really vanishing. All these people with purple hair and nose rings who work with the customers, who are really the core of how it all started, are all not gonna have jobs.
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All material not otherwise attributed ©2001 Dennis Loy Johnson.